The Real Dogs

So one time I’m on the phone with the bank, talking to a robot about money, when I hit the wrong key, somehow ended up with Laird Barron on the other end, and I could tell from the way he was talking that his mouth was just real close to the phone, close enough I had to hold my phone out, look at it. But then I listened. He was already talking, he might have even been mostly asleep, and his voice, something about it, it kind of unmoored me, made me not so much suspicious that he was calling from some timeframe slightly off-kilter with mine, but that he had already taken me with him. Did the room get colder? I don’t know. I mean, I remember it that way now, of course, but that’s just because of the story he told. It’s what I tell myself anyway. A guy’s got to sleep.

So, what Laird was recounting, it was this dog race in the snow, of course, I can’t come close to spelling it, but it wasn’t a real race either, was just something he was doing to get ready for the race. Or, that’s what he told himself at the time, I suspect. Really, he was out there on a sled or a sleigh of whatever it is those Jack London dogs pull, and he wasn’t so much going away from any one place, and wasn’t caught overnight between a here and a there, either. He was going home. Those middle places in the cold, I think a part of him still lives there. This was whatever time of year it is up there when the sun hardly sets, though, so you kind of make your own nighttime, which, when he could tell the dogs were spent, is what he did. He fed them, talked to them, told them things you can only tell a dog in a place this empty, and then he leaned back against his pack with a cup of something hot, decided to watch the stars wheel around for a while, play that same game with them he usually did.

So—and I think this is maybe what happens when there’s no real clear division between night and day—at some point in that hot cup of whatever Laird was drinking (the way he said ‘coffee,’ it had those exact same quotation marks around it, which makes me distrust that it was coffee, but of course it wasn’t anything hard, either, not out there alone like that), the dogs mostly asleep in their pile, one of them keeping half an eye out like happens with dogs, like they’ve got it all planned out, are going to switch watch anytime now, somewhere in that deadspace between night and day, Laird realized they weren’t as alone as they had been.

So, where most guys would roll away from—well, from about anything that just suddenly was standing there by you out in the tundra-cold middle of nowhere—let me just say that Laird’s not any guy. The way he told it (and I suspect the bank robot was listening) was that he kind of peered up at this new shape in all the snow, then looked back to his dogs, ran a casual count of them, just to be sure. Yep, they were all there. Meaning this, this dog standing on its hind legs beside him, surveying their makeshift camp, it wasn’t one of his.

So, Laird took another, more contemplative drink, then said to the newcomer, “You’re wanting something here?” It was a line from a gunfight movie, one I myself could never hope to deliver with a straight face. Anyway, this dog-thing, standing up on its hind legs, it studied Laird now, head to foot, glove to mismatched glove, then eyeballed the dogs some more. “Could be, could be,” the thing said, its words rough-edged, those black lips not delicate enough for proper words. But Laird didn’t have to hear it again. “She’s not for you,” Laird said then, studying the dog pile. They were talking about the dog in heat, the one already making the others pull in their harnesses, or traces, whatever they are.

So, this dog-thing that had stepped in off the icepack, naked save for its fur, its ears outsized, its eyes unnerving, what it did then was laugh in its way. Laird didn’t so much as grin, just took another drink. “Your kind,” the dog-thing said down to Laird, “soon you’ll sleep, you know that, right?” And now Laird did smile. He splashed the remains of whatever had been in his cup down into the snow, and when he brought that metal cup back, it was right into what would be the dog-thing’s kneecap, had its knees bent the right way. The cup of course clattered away, and the dog slashed down with its close paw, and Laird tells it better than I can—the bank robot’s got it recorded, though, I think (if she was even a robot in the first place)—but the fight they had then, up there where nobody could see, it was the kind people sing song about, songs you think are exaggerated, you think have to be exagerrated, but, too, the whole time you’re asking yourself if there’s any other way to fight a dog-thing at twilight in the far north? So, by turns, the dog-thing had the advantage, and then Laird had it pinned, and the camp by now was scattered and blowing, the real dogs circled around, teeth bared. But they knew better than to intrude.

And, that’s where I want to leave Laird and this dog-thing, too, locked in battle, except we all see and read Laird, we know how this story ended: Laird, limping into town, his sled or sleigh missing a runner, a track, whatever it’s called, but he had put that runner to good use, too. What’s more, all his dogs were with him, were carrying him along, even the one in heat, who, six months later, or however long it is a sled dog gestates—Laird wouldn’t say it exactly over the phone, like he was honor-bound to keep some of this story for himself—she threw her litter, and Laird was right there, a hammer in his hand, but of course these were going to grow into dogs that were going to walk on all fours, that were going to lean forward in the traces, ghost across the snow, so, Laird, he petted them as pups, ran them as dogs, buried them when it was time, and now when he crosses the snow, the dogs that can stand up on two legs, they stand off in the distance, waiting for him to finally go to sleep.

But he doesn’t, he wont, he’s Laird, and that’s me saying that now, not him, because the bank robot cut us off in the middle of that big fight, so I hung up the phone, held it there, and no, the room wasn’t colder, but yes—believe me or not—those dogs that can stand up, that aren’t dogs at all, I saw one of them under the streetlight the following week. It watched me for a moment, like it knew I knew, and then it slipped into the neighbor’s yard, back into the story, and I went inside, locked the door, drank something warm and tried to hold it in my chest as long as possible, and when I finally called Laird like I knew I would, he didn’t recognize my voice at first, or at second either, and then the headlights of a passing car threw my shadow up against the empty wall on the other side of the room and my own profile, I saw it, tried to reach up to the top of my head to be sure, but Laird, hearing me all at once now, even the slightest rustle of my sleeve, he said simply Don’t, so I didn’t, and won’t, and anytime I think I’m going to now, I just call the bank, dial up my balance, and the silences between that robot’s dry dispatches, that other people take for a server, processing, I know them for what are now. Can hear the emptiness of the sky above them, and the closeness of the night, and I know Laird’s under all that somewhere, standing between this world and the other, and, along with the robot who’s more human than any of us, I thank him.

stephen graham jones
boulder, co
march 2011